In answer, many would doubtless be picturing the infancy narratives located in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Another narrative which features similar elements is the storyline of director John Sayles’ film The Secret of Roan Inish and while its events bear some similarities to the well-known Bethlehem happenings, it is not of the ‘Christmas movie’ genre. What can be said is that it is a beautifully crafted cinematic offering with strong elements of fantasy and several wholesome and uplifting messages that may be enjoyed and understood by children and adults alike.
Released over twenty years ago in 1994, it largely missed exposure in mainstream commercial cinemas which cost it the ‘classic’ status that public acclaim has seen conferred upon many works of lesser quality.
Set on the mainland and among the islands off the west coast of Ireland just after World War II, the film features ten-year-old Fiona (Jenni Courtney) sent there to live with her grandparents. Fascinated by Roan Inish (Gaelic for ‘Island of the Seals’) Fiona learns through family stories of her parents, her birthplace and a long-lost (apparently dead) brother reputedly stolen by Selkies (half-human half-seal creatures).
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s slow-paced, panoramic tapestry of heaving seas and windswept islands is of itself lyrically delightful. The use of mellow sepia serves to depict family tales yet what is legendary mingles easily with current reality. Grandfather (Mick Lally) Hugh’s recollections flow poetically and are so steeped in myth and quaint, age-old fishermen’s superstition that through him, an impression is seeded that the past walks with the present. Indeed, this serves Sayle’s purpose well as he unravels his story of a family’s longing to return to the ancestral place where its spiritual roots lie.
Aided by composer Mason Daring’s haunting score, the film engages the imagination. Scenes of fantasy and reality unfold in a straightforward manner, a director’s choice through which he upholds the importance of childhood fancy and emphasises that the bond between people, land and creatures is a magical one. Further to this, the film does not suffer from cloying doses of ‘Disneyesque’ sentimentality but instead, remains quietly moving.
In second millennium terms this film might generally be considered ‘old’; to bypass it on those grounds would be throwing the baby out with the bath-water. Rated PG, this offering is an enduring gem.